I like first lines, although I probably take them more seriously than many.
Because, for me, the first line is the one sentence in any book that its author has agonised over the most. If that first line jars, then I’ll think twice about reading the rest of the book.
So, your first line, or paragraph, is the door through which your reader can choose to go through. It is your book’s entry point.
That said, there are no hard and fast rules.
That first sentence can be tantalising:
“In 1972, two seconds were added to time.” – Rachel Joyce, Perfect
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” – Iain Banks, The Crow Road
Or it can raise questions:
“The funeral is to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends.” – Jessie Burton, The Miniaturist
“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times,” – Ali Smith, Autumn
“I know that some of you reading this are convinced humans are a myth but I am here to state that they actually exist.” – Matt Haig, The Humans
“All children, except one, grow up.” – JM Barrie, Peter Pan
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” JK Rowling, Harry Potter
Or it can tantalise:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
“Orange juice was not scheduled for Fridays.” Graeme Simsion, The Rosie Effect
“I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.” – Barbara Comyns, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths
Or it can simply state facts:
“Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor of a bar built on the beach.” – Deborah Levy, Hot Milk
“Late one July evening in 1994, Red and Abby Whitshank had a phone call from their son Denny.” Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread
“She’s buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn.” – Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train
“Lloyd shoves off the bedcovers and hurries to the front door in white underwear and black socks.” – Tom Rachman, The Imperfectionists
The first line of a book is its gateway. It doesn’t have to be utterly catchy or clever. But it should give the reader a sense that they’re in safe hands.
Depending on the kind of book you want to write, it can create a sense of curiosity, or a sense of foreboding. It can put questions in the reader’s mind – questions that they want answers to, and therefore give them a reason to read on.
The first sentence and paragraph set the scene. They invite the reader in. But they also have to remain true to the rest of the book. You can’t start off in one style and then switch. The narrative style has to flow through the book.
Your first line and paragraph must also set tone and context. Your reader will want to know where they are, who they’re reading about. They need to get that context fixed in their mind, so they can let their imagination start to imagine your world.
It’s about engagement, drawing your reader in, and it can also be about establishing the character of your narrator:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
They’re intended to give you the confidence and skills to understand what makes great writing . Also, on the Diploma course, to actually get you started on your novel.
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